Economic Snapshot | Immigration

Overloaded Immigration Courts: With Too Few Judges, Hundreds of Thousands of Immigrants Wait Nearly Two Years for a Hearing

The immigration court system is severely underfunded and there are too few judges, especially since caseloads began skyrocketing in 2009. Tens of thousands of unaccompanied migrant children fleeing from Central America and arriving at the Southwest border will be waiting for years while their cases are being adjudicated. Rather than providing sufficient funding for new immigration judges, multiple proposals in Congress would amend current law to eliminate the right these vulnerable children have to a full hearing in court.

The figure shows that in 1998, the immigration court system had 202 judges who were responsible for 129,500 cases. The caseload has increased dramatically since then but the number of judges has not kept pace: The immigration courts now have a backlog of 375,500 cases and only 243 immigration judges to adjudicate them. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants, including children, wait an average of 587 days for a hearing, and it can take three to five years for their cases to be resolved. Each immigration judge is responsible for an average of 1,500 cases, approximately three times more than the average caseload for federal court judges. In busier courts immigration judges may be responsible for 2,500 to 6,000 cases, and some have only seven minutes to hear each.

President Obama’s emergency funding request to manage the processing of unaccompanied migrant children would allocate $45.4 million to hire 40 additional immigration judges, and his administration’s proposed FY 2015 budget separately requests funds for 35 more. Combined, these 75 judges would allow the immigration courts to adjudicate an estimated additional 55,000 to 75,000 cases annually. But that is less than the total number of unaccompanied migrant children projected to arrive in 2014 alone, meaning it will not make a dent in the overall backlog. The Obama administration has indicated it will adjudicate the cases of children first, which will inevitably lead to longer wait times for other cases, including for immigrants who are awaiting deportation hearings while in prison.

Congress could go a long way toward fixing the system by tripling the number of immigration judges with an investment of $500 million—which is less than 3 percent of the $18 billion spent annually on immigration enforcement.

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